Most dog owners are familiar with the little ritual that often occurs when their dogs want a belly rub. They’ll roll over, spread themselves out with paws in the air and look at their dog owners expectantly, asking for a rub.
But why do dogs like belly rubs so much?
One theory is that dogs receive positive reinforcement from belly rubs and other social interactions. When we pet or talk to our dogs, their bodies release feel-good chemicals such as endorphins and oxytocin that makes them happy.
Whether you’re a newbie dog owner or a longtime pet owner, learning the secret to good dog belly rub – and the reasons why your dog loves them – can help you build a stronger relationship with your four-legged friend.
Why Do Dogs Love Belly Rubs: The Scientific Reason
Why do dogs like their belly rubbed? The science behind why dogs like belly rubs boil down to a specific brain neuron that responds to the stimulation of hair follicles. Dogs and other mammals possess this neuron, making belly rubs a delightful sensation for them.
So, what does a belly rub feel like to a dog? Very similar, I suppose to the pleasure and relaxation we feel when someone combs or strokes our hair, activating this specific neuron. This probably explains why dogs love getting their bellies rubbed.
Other factors, such as the calming effect of belly rubs and the social interaction that occurs during these moments, also contribute to your dog’s enjoyment. Ultimately, the bottom line is that belly rubs make your dog happy and, as a result, are essential to building a strong and healthy relationship between you and your dog.
Other Reasons Dogs Like Belly Rubs
Beyond the scientific explanation, there are several other reasons why dogs love belly rubs. So if you’re still curious to know why dogs like being petted on the belly, keep reading!
It Feels Good
Dogs like tummy rubs for the same reasons we do – they feel good. As we mentioned above, the release of oxytocin and endorphins during a belly rub is likely one of the main reasons why dogs love them so much. Oxytocin is the “cuddle hormone”, and it plays a vital role in social bonding and relaxation.
Endorphins, on the other hand, are feel-good chemicals that help relieve stress and pain. So when your dog enjoys a good belly rub, it’s likely they are experiencing feelings of pleasure and relaxation as a result.
So if you’re wondering, “Why does my dog smile when I rub his belly?” The answer is likely that it feels good!
“Many social behaviors involve vulnerability. Animals understand that making oneself vulnerable is a HUGE deal… so when they gain great pleasure from making themselves vulnerable, well, they tend to find it incredibly rewarding”, shares Michelle Callard-Stone, MS, Ph.D. in Animal Behavior from UC Davis.
It’s a Sign of Submission
When a dog rolls over and exposes its stomach, it shows that it trusts you and feels comfortable around you, which can be seen as a sign of submission.
That’s because exposing your stomach to another dog or human is considered a sign of vulnerability, which shows that you have no fear or aggression towards the other being. And since dogs view themselves as part of a social group, they may look at belly rubs as a way to show their trust and respect for you.
So if your dog rolls over or nudges you for belly rubs, it’s a good sign and signifies that it sees you as part of its social group and is comfortable around you. This can help deepen your bond and strengthen the connection between you.
“When dogs roll onto their backs, it can be a sign of submission or evidence of comfort in their current environment.” – Dr. Katy Nelson.
In addition to the biological explanation of why dogs like belly rubs so much, several psychological and emotional factors come into play. For example, petting your dog on its belly can help it release any feelings of tension or anxiety it may be experiencing.
This is because petting a dog on its belly has a calming and soothing effect, which can help your dog relax and feel more comfortable in the moment. The result? A happy dog and a happy you!
We previously mentioned that when you pet your dog’s belly, a specific reaction is set off in its brain in response to the stimulation of hair follicles. Many experts also agree that dogs love to be petted – especially on their bellies- because it mimics the act of social grooming.
This means that when you pet your dog on its belly, it associates the act with self-grooming behavior. And as social animals, dogs are naturally prone to grooming as a way to bond with other members of their social group.
In the same way that monkeys or chimps will groom each other to form social bonds, dogs are likely drawn to belly rubs because it brings them closer to their humans and helps strengthen their bond.
Should You Rub Your Dog’s Belly?
To rub or not to rub – that is the question. Granted, a lot of dogs like belly rubs. But it’s still safe to assume that a certain percentage may not be so comfortable with being petted on the tummy.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, if your dog is newly rescued, it might still need to acclimate and feel more comfortable around you before it can submit to belly rubs. Second, if your dog has been hurt or abused in the past, it may have trouble trusting and opening up to new people.
Certain activities, such as brushing your dog’s teeth or cutting its nails, require a bit of patience (and persistence) on your part. But if you approach these routines with calm, loving energy and take things slowly, allowing your pet enough time to adjust to new sensations, things should go smoothly. Learn how to cut dog nails at home to avoid mishaps.
That said, it’s always best to be respectful of your dog’s preferences and boundaries. If they don’t seem super receptive to belly rubs, try other forms of physical affection instead. But if your dog appears to enjoy belly rubs and is always enthusiastic about them, then there’s no reason to hold back.
Submissive Behavior Vs. Wanting A Belly Rub
Dogs often roll over to expose their bellies as either a submissive display or a request for belly rubs. You must be able to read your dog’s needs before petting it so you can respond appropriately.
Dogs who assume a submissive stance are trying to show that they’re non-threatening and don’t want any trouble. If a dog is trying to be submissive to appease you, avoid petting it, as doing so will only make it more nervous. You’re touching very sensitive parts of its body, which can aggravate its nervousness.
The next time you’re trying to figure out if your dog wants its belly rubbed, look for these cues in its body language:
- An overall relaxed, loose body posture or playful stance
- Relaxed, open mouth, “smiling” or with tongue flopping around
- A relaxed, wagging tail
- Light vocalizations or panting sounds
By contrast, a dog that is trying to be submissive or appeasing will exhibit the following cues:
- Tense body posture: crouching or otherwise unmoving
- Lips pulled back and mouth closed
- Eyes that seem squinty and tense
- Tail tucked or wagging with tension at the base
- Soft, whiny vocalizations that sound like its crying
So, if you are wondering what it means when your dog shows you its belly, start by reading its body language. Pay close attention to its posture and facial expressions, and note whether your dog shows any signs of anxiety or discomfort.
Overall, if you’re unsure about whether your dog likes having its belly rubbed, it’s better to err on the side of caution. As a general rule, a dog’s tail and mouth are pretty good indicators of how it’s feeling at the moment. If your dog is wagging its tail and grinning, it’s a good sign that it’s in the mood for some belly rubs!
However, if your dog seems tense, reassuring it that it is safe and that you are not a threat can help alleviate these anxieties. Likewise, if your dog assumes a submissive stance, back off and give it some space instead. Ultimately, being gentle and respectful of your pet’s needs is always important.
Tips For The Perfect Belly Rub
If you want to know how to belly rub a dog the right way, the first step is knowing when it’s okay to do so – and when it’s probably not a good idea.
Not All Dogs Like Belly Rubs
Most of us mistakenly assume that all dogs like belly rubs. While this is true to a large extent, it’s important to remember that every dog is different and has its own preferences. Some may love tummy rubs and tickles, while others may be wary of such physical contact.
Be sure to watch for aggressive physical cues or body language, such as:
- Tense or stiff posture
- Pinned ears and fur standing up on the neck, back, or tail
- Growling, snapping, or otherwise aggressive vocalizations
If you notice your dog exhibiting any of these signs, it’s probably best to back off and refrain from touching it. Instead, try other forms of affection, like playing catch or going for a walk.
When you’re ready to give your dog a belly rub, keeping a few key tips in mind can make the experience pleasant for both of you.
Respect Personal Space
Only attempt to roll your dog onto its back for a belly rub if it is already lying down near you. If your dog is on its tummy, never try to force it onto its back. Respecting personal space is crucial when it comes to building trust with your pup.
Kneel or Crouch Down
Get on your dog’s level by kneeling or crouching down. Dogs are very intuitive when it comes to human emotion, so remain calm and relaxed! Your mood and body language are important here.
Do a Trial Rub
Place your hand on your dog’s belly and rub in gentle, circular motions. Do this for 5-10 seconds, then stop.
See How It Responds
Your dog will let you know when they’ve had enough belly rubs by either rolling back onto their tummy, getting up and walking away, or pawing at you. If they show signs of enjoyment or stay positioned on their back, it’s a sign that you can continue what you’re doing.
Mix It Up
You can experiment with various belly rub techniques over time. Find out what your dog likes best by switching between rubbing, tickling, or patting their belly!
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Do Dogs Sometimes “Kick” Their Legs When They Are Petted?
A dog’s sweet spot is its tummy, thanks to a cluster of nerves just located under the skin in this area. Scratching or petting your pet’s tummy activates or triggers these nerves, which in turn will transmit a message to the hind legs to start kicking in order to get rid of the source of the irritation.
How Do You Know Your Dog Wants A Belly Rub?
Your dog might exhibit a few signs that it is in the mood for a belly rub. Often, it will raise its chest off the ground and turn its head towards you as a way of asking for more affection. Some dogs may even start wagging their tail or rolling around on the floor in an attempt to get you to rub their bellies.
What Does A Dog Rolling Onto Its Back Mean?
In many cases, a dog rolling over onto its back may signify submission or surrender and may be a request for reassurance and comfort. On the other hand, some dogs simply enjoy rolling over onto their backs to get attention or invite you to play.
What Is A ‘Dog Scratch Reflex’?
The scratch reflex occurs when the body’s surface is stimulated, activating neurons whose peripheral terminals are located on the skin’s surface. In most dogs, this reflex is stimulated when they’re tickled or petted in certain parts of the belly, on the sides, legs, or back. Some dogs also get this reflex when touched on the ears, paws, or chest.
Do Dogs Like This Scratch Reflex Sensation?
The scratch reflex is an automatic response that protects dogs from fleas, ticks, and other sources of irritation. Although it might be amusing to watch your dog reflexively scratch, it could actually be irritating the nerves that lead to their spinal cord.
Why Do Dogs Like Belly Rubs in the Morning?
For many dogs, the best time for a belly rub is in the morning when serotonin levels are highest.
Do Dogs Get Pleasure From Belly Rubs?
Yes, it’s been scientifically proven that dogs get pleasure from belly rubs. This is because the activation of certain pressure and touch receptors in their skin can lead to the release of feel-good hormones like oxytocin and endorphins.
Why Do Dogs Like Belly Rubs but Cats Don’t?
Cats tend to be more skittish and less submissive than dogs, so exposing their vital organs (belly side up) stresses them out, making most cats averse to belly rubs.